Instead of a soaring room flooded with natural light, they took their places in a cramped, fluorescent-lit auditorium. Instead of the sounds of a pipe organ, they heard the drone of a temperamental air conditioner. Instead of pews fitted with fabric kneelers, congregants filed into rows of theater-style folding seats. But in their first Sunday worship away from their 280-year-old historic property, the members of The Falls Church Anglican congregation in Falls Church, Virginia were too busy laughing and greeting one another to notice the new inconveniences.
“The people of the church have been full of joy and thankfulness,” says Laura Smethurst, “buoyed by the conviction that to stand up for the Son of God is of ultimate importance.” It was the Anglican congregation’s firm stance on the authority of God’s word and the moral wrong of homosexuality that cost the 4,000-member church nearly everything they owned. Six years ago, after the mainline Episcopal Church ordained an openly practicing homosexual bishop, 90 percent of The Falls Church congregation voted to break with the denomination and align with the conservative branch of the worldwide Anglican church.
As a result of the decision, the Episcopal diocese brought the Anglican congregation to court to dispute ownership of the historic Falls Church building. The congregation argued that the property deed is in the name of the church and a Circuit Court judge initially agreed. But the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church appealed that ruling and the Virginia Supreme Court said the particular statute used in their defense did not apply. The case was remanded back to the Circuit Court to be decided under neutral principles of contract and property law. This time the same Circuit Court judge ruled against them, ordering the Anglican congregation to turn their $26 million historic church building and all the church’s other property over to the Episcopalian diocese.
From the Bank Account to the Bibles
The lawsuit has taken nearly everything from the church: staff offices, prayer books, sound equipment, the rectory that has housed the pastor and his wife for 33 years, and $2.8 million that was in the church accounts at the time of the split. Church staff even had to count and leave every single Bible the church had owned. A locksmith changed the locks behind them.
For the next several months the Anglican congregation is bouncing between school auditoriums and Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church. Several churches of other denominations have stepped forward to offer space for ministry activities, though church leaders are working from their homes—or Starbucks—while the church’s finances are pending. After spending millions of dollars in legal expenses, the congregation does not have enough money to purchase a new building.
The Falls Church is one of hundreds of congregations across the country that have given up their buildings rather than stay affiliated with a branch of their church they believe denies the final authority of Scripture. But after the Episcopal Church regained control of some church buildings, they found the declining denomination couldn’t afford to keep them. The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York offered to purchase their building when they split from the Episcopal denomination, but the diocese refused. Instead, the building was turned into a mosque.
Of the 38 Anglican provinces across the world, 22 have declared “broken” or “impaired” fellowship with the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican church. The conservative provinces recognize the Anglican Church in North America as the true Anglican church in the United States. The Falls Church chose to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), the conservative missionary branch of the Anglican church of Nigeria, which is now a part of the Anglican Church in North America.
Too Small a Thing to Remain
At Sunday’s service, hymns such as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” took on a renewed meaning as church members sang, “Thou hast brought me to this place, and I know Thy hand will lead me safely home by Thy good grace.”
“One blessing from this is the opportunity to become more like Jesus Christ during all of this,” noted Smethurst. “Right now, we don’t know the future more than a few months down the road, but we do know that God will take care of us and greatly desires us to grow in holiness and in Christ-like character through all of it.”
“It was too small of a thing for us to remain at the Falls Church,” said rector Rev. John Yates at Sunday’s service. Yates reminded the church that their mission was “go out into all the world and preach the Gospel.” He preached from Romans 8, which affirms, “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Having worshipped alongside the members of The Falls Church last Sunday, I have no doubt that the body will continue to flourish and grow strong despite the hardships. The people of The Falls Church recognize that a church is not simply a building; it is the bride of Christ, the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” that the congregation affirms week after week in the Nicene Creed. This truth allows me, raised a non-denominational Christian, to feel at home worshipping through the liturgy, united with people who are my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Forgiveness and the Future
The tragedy of the situation at The Falls Church is not that the congregation will die, but that yet another a historic symbol of American Christianity has fallen into the hands of those who teach doctrines contrary to Scripture. The church where George Washington worshipped now belongs to a denomination that accepts and condones practices that would have scandalized the Founding Father—and, more importantly, Our Heavenly Father.
An even greater tragedy, though, is the deep wounds that the division in the Anglican church has left in the hearts of people on both sides of the dispute. Forgiveness and healing will be difficult, but the leaders of the Falls Church recognize that both can only come from God’s help. They’re seeking supernatural strength to look forward, rather than to their past.
“Do I have regrets?” Yates asked in an editorial recently published in the Washington Post. “Yes, a few. I regret that so much ink has been spilled over a few social issues (important as they are) instead of on the deeper theological issue of how we understand and obey the will of God. And I wish we could have communicated more successfully that none of us is without sin. We all need the Savior.”